By Erin Brown
Before going to Toronto for the summer, Sam Bennett spent his last days in South Florida soaking up what it had to offer.
Trips to the beach for sun and a deep-sea fishing excursion with Florida Panthers teammates Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau left the relative newcomer feeling positive about making the tropical locale his new home.
Outside of getting to enjoy his hobbies of golfing, boating and fishing, Bennett is once again excited about his future on the ice. “A lot of people talked to me about how a change of scenery can really revitalize a career and change the way things go,” Bennett said. “I knew I still had a lot more to give and more to show as a player. I thought I could do a lot more than what I was doing in Calgary. Sometimes that’s all it takes, a little bit of a change, a GM and a coach that believe in you and that’s definitely what I got in Florida.”
Traded by the Flames with a sixth-round pick in 2022 to Florida for prospect Emil Heineman and a 2022 second-round choice moments before the April trade deadline, the 25-year-old struggled to meet expectations in Calgary. The fourth overall pick in 2014 and highest selection in Flames history, Bennett impressed with 36 points in his first full season, finishing 11th among rookie scorers in a class which included Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin and Jack Eichel. But Bennett’s production and ice time declined amidst numerous role changes with the Flames.
Bennett’s stint in Calgary may not have produced the results he hoped for, but the experience primed him for joining the Panthers. He supplanted Alex Wennberg as Florida’s No. 2 center upon arriving.
The infusion of high-energy play and grit created a prolific mix among Huberdeau, Anthony Duclair and, later, rookie Owen Tippett. “I got to play with some great players,” Bennett said. “They helped me as well. All that, put together with gaining confidence quickly, I think that was the recipe to have success early.”
After joining Florida, Bennett appeared on the scoresheet in all but two contests. He finished with six goals – half of them winners – and 15 points in 10 regular-season games. The Holland Landing, Ont., native also maintained his reputation as a playoff performer with five points in five games in a first-round loss to Tampa Bay.
Bennett benefitted Florida in all areas. Averaging slightly more than 18 minutes per game, up from his 13:28 while in Calgary, Bennett’s duties also included time on Florida’s first power-play unit and on the penalty kill. “The opportunity alone was a ton,” Bennett said.
Bennett figures to remain where he finished at season’s end, cementing the Cats up the middle with Aleksander Barkov, Noel Acciari and prospect Anton Lundell. Should Florida find itself with a glut of centers or in a pinch on the wing, Bennett is “comfortable” with skating to the outside as well.
The flaw in the pivot’s game is when his intensity crosses a line. Though Bennett is not a habitual offender, his absence can be glaring. During Florida’s first-round series, he was suspended for the Game 2 loss after boarding Tampa Bay’s Blake Coleman. When Bennett was in the lineup, he had four trips to the penalty box and the Bolts’ deadly power play capitalized three times.
If the Panthers have learned anything in two seasons under coach Joel Quenneville, though, confidence can have a dramatic effect on players erasing blemishes. Bennett notes playing under the three-time Cup winner has had a transformative effect on his play. “He’s a coach that once he trusts you and believes in you, he’ll put you in situations to succeed,” Bennett said. “He gives pointers here and there and advice. But he’ll let you play hockey, too. It’s been unbelievable and I couldn’t be happier with my time under ‘Q.’ ”
Bennett will return to Florida in September, with time for a few rounds of golf or fishing for tuna in the Atlantic Ocean before players gather for training camp. Thankful for the change of scenery, Bennett is hopeful this environment will last. “The benefit of the lifestyle in Florida is always good,” he said. “It’s good for your mood. It’s good for everything. I’m excited about that.”